Hun Sen is expected to win another five year term as Cambodia’s Prime Minister after national assembly elections this weekend. According to polls, his party still has the confidence of the majority of voters, despite widespread accusations of corruption. But a history of violence leading up to the elections has made many Cambodians fear for their safety.
Campaigning in Phnom Penh
Campaigning in the nation’s capital is noisy. Trucks owned by the competing political parties prow down the streets, blaring slogans as to why you should vote for their candidates.
Sitting behind her stand of vegetables at roadside market, 43 year old Sukwang doesn’t seemed to phased by all the commotion. She says she’s not really interested in politics, but thinks this weekend’s parliamentary elections are important:
"I think Hun Sen has done a good job, but I want to see a change. There are too many gangsters and drugs now in the country. I really don’t like these things, so I think we need change."
Opposition without a chance
No one here really expects that any of the ten opposition parties will win enough of the 123 seats up for grabs to draw power away Hun Sen.
But even if they did, the Prime Minister has been known to resort to force to get his way. Cambodia was almost plunged back into civil war leading up to the 1998 elections when Hun Sen launched a violent coup to oust his co-premier and consolidate power.
Graham Elson, Deputy Chief Observer of the European Union’s Election Observation Mission to Cambodia says violence in this year’s campaign is significantly less than compared to previous elections. But there is still much room for improvement: "Our view is that there is still maybe a little bit too much violence and that any violence is not acceptable in a country that wishes to have or claims to have a good democratic process."
Many Cambodians are pointing the finger toward the government following the murder of a prominent journalist who worked for a newspaper associated with a leading opposition party. The reporter’s son was also killed during the drive-by shooting.
Police here have so far deemed the slayings to be an act ordinary criminality and not politically motivated.
The EU Monitors say that even if the official account is correct, the government needs to show voters they are taking the murder seriously. Again, Graham Elson: "The authorities would serve themselves well if they ensure there was a complete and very thorough investigation of that particular incident. Understandably, the interpretation by many people, particularly in the journalistic world also in the opposition parties, it has made them more fearful for their own safety."
EU monitors polls
The EU mission will release a preliminary report regarding the openness of Cambodia’s elections two days after the polls close. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, the CPP, has also built a reputation for corrupt campaigning practices.
Kul Pyonyeh, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections says that vote buying was a major complaint against the CPP in previous elections. And even now, politicians are blurring the line between what is a gift and what is a bribe:
"Sometime the political party explains that they give some material, money to their members, that they are just giving to the poor people, and some political party, some politician, just say they provide some gift to the people during a religious ceremony, so they say that this is not the activity of vote buying."
For Hun Sen, the election might as well already be over. The Prime Minister has more or less declared himself the winner, announcing earlier this year that 'no one can defeat Hun Sen, only Hun Sen can defeat Hun Sen'.